Cragging at Mt Somers, NZ

December 28-30, 2007 / trad, several, AUS grade 15 to 21

Wednesday, December 26: We spend Christmas cragging at Wye Creek near Queenstown. The forecast is not looking too good. Some drier weather is expected for the weekend (Fri-Sun), but not stable enough for the high mountains. Besides, the Mt Cook area has been receiving significant snow (~10cm/24hr) and is in avalanche cycle for the next few days. The weather is expected to be somewhat more settled in the east, so we decide to head for Mt Somers. The climbing there is at low altitude (~1000m) and on a North (i.e. sunny) aspect. We leave Q-town that afternoon and make it to Lake Tekapo, where we settle for the night on a lovely hill right above the lake, with gorgeous views of the Mt Cook group (unfortunately in the clouds). It is very cold that evening. Still snowing in the mountains.

The next day we continue the drive toward Mt Somers, with a quick stop at an internet café in Lake Tekapo to confirm the forecasts. Partial clearing still expected for Fri-Sun. We stop in Geraldine to prepare the gear. The DOC office is closed, but we use their backyard (complete with water and a picnic table) to pack for a 3 to 4 day rock climbing trip to the North face of Mt Somers. By now, the gear is well organized in the truck so it only takes a couple of hours to pack. The packs are heavy, as they always are when we carry a full rock climbing rack. We're taking 3 ½ days of food. We're also packing a tent, as the Pinnacles hut, the normal base for Mt Somers rock climbing is reputed to get very crowded with trampers, particularly on weekends… and this is the busiest holiday weekend of the year! In the afternoon, we finish the drive to the car park at Sharplin Falls and settle there for the night.

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Traveling from Wanaka to Omarama.
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Overnight stop near Lake Pukaki.
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Enjoying the evening by the lake.
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Leaving our van at Sharplin Falls (Mt Somers trailhead).
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Hiking toward Pinnacles hut.

Friday, December 28: It's only supposed to take 2 ½ to 3 hours from the car park to the hut so we don't start early. It's still raining early morning anyway. After we have breakfast and finish some last-minute packing, it's past ten o'clock when we start up the trail. There are very few vehicles at the car park. We start right behind a group of three trampers, and soon pass them as they are moving quite slow. The trail is difficult (muddy, slippery, steep, and lots of roots) and the walk mostly through very wet bush. It makes us wonder about vegetation on the rock… we'll see. It's incredibly humid and muggy.

We don't get any views of the cliffs until 10 minutes before reaching the hut, when we reach a minor col. Numerous walls of columnar basalt are visible above, although only a few of them look like they may have good enough rock to climb. The "Orange Wall", the "Far Side", and the "Christian Principals Wall" look pretty good from here. Still wondering about moss and vegetation though… even though these three areas appear clean from here.

We reach the hut after exactly after 2 ½ hours on the trail. Not bad. Two hikers are relaxing on the deck, but the hut is otherwise empty… maybe there's hope? Tent sites don't look too good anyway; only a few small and not-that-flat spots around the hut. We quickly pick two bunks in the hut (way in the back and on top). We can always set up the tent later if things get too crazy. We have lunch and organize our gear. Two other hikers arrive about an hour later. Then the group of three that started just before us from the car park finally arrive after over 4 ½ hours (!).

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Looking up from the trail toward Mt Somers' North face.
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Arriving at Pinnacles hut.
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The hut is pretty cozy.
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The "Christian Principals" wall.
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Lucie leading the finger crack of "Bring Back the Cane" (15).

By that time, we are almost ready to head up to the rocks for some climbing. We leave the hut around 3PM and make the steep bushwhack to the "Christian Principals Wall". It is cloudy but not raining. We finally make it to the base after 45 minutes (the book says 20…) of difficult cross-country travel. The terrain is steep everywhere. Fortunately, there is a small flat spot at the base to gear up. We're not too enthused with the looks of the wall. It is not nearly as clean as it appeared from a distance. Over-hyped once again (a recurring theme in NZ rock-climbing...), but we're here so we might as well give it a shot.

We start with "Bring Back the Cane" (15), the cleanest looking line on the wall, and one that looks like it probably offers decent protection. The climbing turns out pretty fun, with plenty of pro in the clean finger crack, and very porous, frictiony rock. Next, we climb two longer lines at the right side of the wall: "Corporal Punishment" (16) and "The Staircase" (16). Both climb similar-looking sets of very thin double cracks, the first escaping left below a small roof at the top, while the second goes right through it via a fun finger crack. Just enough pro on both: you have to look for it a little, but it's there and pretty solid. Double ropes are recommended though, as the pro tends to be scattered around. We finish with "Buns of Steel" (19), the last decent-looking line on the wall (everything else looks like bush-whacking). This one has thin, bolted face climbing on crimpers on the arete of one of the columns. Pretty cruxy.

It's past 8PM when we get back to the hut. To our horror, it's almost full now. Surprizingly though, they are all ready to hit the sack and nobody is making a sound… we quietly and quickly have dinner before going to bed. It's very hot in the hut (they've had a fire in the wood stove all afternoon). We don't get much sleep… lots of snoring around.

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Classic basalt columb climbing on "Corporal Punishment" (16).
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Views, looking west from the crag.
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Eric leading "The Staircase" (16).
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More views.
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Another decent-looking line: "Buns of Steel" (19).

The next morning, everyone gets up early (we wonder why, they only have a couple of hours walk to the next hut?), but we stay in bed, trying to catch some sleep once they're all gone. We re-emerge late morning, and have a leisurely breakfast before getting the gear ready for more climbing. The Orange Wall is our destination for today, and it's in the sun until mid-afternoon so we're in no hurry.

We leave the hut around lunch time. The approach is easier (decent trail) but very steep and takes us 35 minutes. Once again, the rock is nowhere near as clean as it looks from a distance. Lots of moss in the lower third, and substantial grass and small bushes in the cracks above. The good looking lines also look pretty hard… 21 to 25! The easier ones just don't look appealing and are quite dirty.

After some hesitation, we finally start up "Orange Roughy" (16). The first third goes up a very dirty slab (moss), then a corner with a dirty crack (dirt and moss), before traversing right (fun, wild move) to the arete. The rest of the climb is on the face of the column with four bolts. The rock is suspicious. Looks brittle. Some distance above the first bolt, Eric suddenly pops off the wall when a large block he was using for a hand-hold breaks, sending him and a shower of rocks down the wall. Scary. Probably about a 20-footer, upside down at the end. Fortunately, we're both OK. Lucie saw the rocks fly by pretty close. Eric continues the climb, a bit shaken, and now even more concerned about the soundness of the rock, which does not improve on the rest of the climb…

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Leisurely breakfast at Pinnacles hut.
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Hiking to the "Orange Wall".
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The Orange Wall has the best harder lines around.
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Eric warming up on "Orange Roughy" (16).
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Getting ready to rap down.

Feeling tired, and not that crazy about any more climbing, we decide to rap from the anchors at the top of "Uno", THE classic corner on this wall (rated 21) to inspect the rock. Looks OK, and with plenty of protection options. The other classic to the right of the roof (Skate, 22) on the other hand, badly needs cleaning: grass, moss, and bushes are plugging the crack for most of its length. This wall simply doesn't get enough traffic.

We decide to give "Uno" a try. Eric is feeling pretty tired (he's had a bad headache since yesterday night), but the line looks good - the best on the wall. The initial slab is awfully mossy, but soon the route reaches the left-leaning corner and the climbing improves. The higher one gets, the steeper the corner gets. Footholds are tricky, but the crack offers decent jams at intervals, and good rests can be had by chimneying your right shoulder against the wall. Bloody sustained, but Eric makes it on sight without hanging! YeeeHaaa! Lucie follows in good style, but has to work on a couple of stuck pieces. We rap back down and call it a day. At least we got one of the best classics of the area. The other ("Skate") looks to dirty to climb without a good scrub.

We get back down to the hut. There are now more people than bunks. Two more are camped outside. One will sleep on the floor. There are also two young kids. More lively bunch than last night. We chat a bit during dinner. Not sure what the night will be like. We pull out the ear-plugs. Eric promptly looses his, but Lucie is nice enough to let him have her set. That way, he might get some sleep and cure that headache. Lucie doesn't like using them anyway. Ear-plugs are the way to go. Eric gets very good sleep that night. Not so for Lucie…

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Views across the valley.
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Eric starting up "Uno" (21), the classic corner of the Orange Wall.
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Higher up on "Uno".
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Rapping down.
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Leaving the hut the next day.

Sunday, December 30: Once again, we stay in bed late, and wait for most of the other people to leave. When we finally get up, there are only 7 people left. The family of 4 with the two young kids, and a group of three teenagers. Lazy morning. It's sunny and very warm today. We chat a bit over breakfast. These guys are having bacon and eggs! We only brought freeze-dried, needing the space in our packs for climbing gear and not knowing that the hut would be equipped with a good selection of pots and pans!!. Eventually, everybody leaves and we are left to enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. Not for long...

A group of 4 guys arrive about an hour later. Trampers. Frying pans and radios. We're out of here! It takes us 2 ¼ hours to get down. We end up passing most others. The parking area is packed full when we get there. Day hikers and trampers. We haven't seen a single climber the whole trip. No wonder those cracks are dirty. It's very hot.

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Basalt columns everywhere... if only they could be cleaner.
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Headed back to the trailhead.
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Hiking under a small waterfall on the way back to the car.
   

Lenticular clouds were forming this morning over the summits, and they are getting denser. We spend a couple of hours emptying our packs and reorganizing the gear. We decide to go to Timaru. It's a decent-size town, and we need groceries and washing machines. On the way out, we stop to buy showers at the motorcamp in Mt Somers ($3NZD each). The place is packed with gigantic tents, set up tightly against one another, refugee-camp style… NZ holidays are in full swing!

We make it to Timaru that night. Lonely Planet said good things about a cheap Mexican restaurant. We check it out: terrible looking menu… we flee. They also said good things about the local beach at Caroline Bay. It's one of the ugliest beach we've ever seen! It's bordered by the industrial harbour and a container park! We look around for a restaurant and give up an hour later in a bad mood. Food in NZ is hopeless. We end up making omelettes in the truck. The front moves in that evening. Gale force winds shake the camper.